The Mastery of Inhabiting Bygone Eras

There’s a story going round in my head, which has emerged courtesy of a conversation about personal travel experiences. And I have most of the narrative laid out– the only problem, if problem it is, is that, to be honest to the near-contemporary episodes ripe for examination, this tale is demanding to take place in Nabokovian time, a temporal space that could never rule out the possibility of, say, Walter Benjamin meandering through the gathered ensemble, an old-world, book-bound sort of Alfred Hitchcock cameo.

But the risks of undertaking such a project are rife; although historical accuracy isn’t a matter of concern here, the sort of language that’s forcing its way onto paper is obviously not the stuff of the Twitter era, or even of my own Reaganite childhood, whose idiom perseveres undaunted, sometimes forgetting that Max Headroom died long ago. Imitation of dialects and generation-based modes of speech so often results in sad rigidity, somehow betraying the author as nothing more than a hollow shell unable to thrive in his/her own time.

The good factor here–or bad, depending on one’s writerly skill and ability to compare it accurately with others’– is the presence of works that have brilliantly carried out just such aspirations. Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, in addition to feeling linguistically alive, is so amazing that I forgave the author for having written The Crying of Lot 49, or at least for what felt there like a misogynist’s take on a literary heroine.* And John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor couldn’t have been written in anything other than would-be 17th-century English. Then again, the other side of the (perhaps not same) coin is a possibly unsound allegiance to bad or inaccurate or otherwise not useful works or translations that employ (now-) dated language: to cite just one example, the King James Bible, in addition to other issues of redaction and translation, is full of terms and phrases that no contemporary person would understand without a good deal of education, and so leaves the field wide open to nutty theological interpretations.

Since my story is really just an experiment in accurately getting across a feeling, a peculiarly situated discomfort, I don’t feel a great deal of responsibility regarding its setting or style, as long as neither detracts from the obvious presence of the sensation itself. If I even finish the thing, I will have scored a minor personal victory– so I’ll only worry at that point about time-bound missteps and false vintages. Until then, maybe some Nabokov is in order for tonight’s bedtime reading…


* In spite of said portrayal, I love, love, love the underground postal system featured in the book. Look again at my Cold War-era upbringing and historically-linked childhood desire to be a spy**; how could I not have fallen in love with such a set-up?

** This career goal lost its charm once I realized just what implications it carried along with it: in addition to fooling enemy no-goodniks, a true exemplar of the profession would also be pulling the wool over the eyes of everyone else, including the people closest to and most important to her. And all this in the name either of venality or of patriotism– the latter skillfully described by Borges as “that least discerning of passions.” Jorge Luis Borges, “The Shape of the Sword,” in Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley (New York: Penguin, 1998), 138.


One comment

  1. birds fly

    The underground postal system is by far the best part of that book. I also had a brief obsession with Jacobean revenge tragedies after reading it. At age 20, these things seemed incredibly intense to me.

    Happy to hear you’ve been inspired. Your notes here sound intriguing, so I encourage you to continue onward!


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